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I’ve seen a number of movies the last couple of years that end with one of the main characters sitting at a table, behind a huge pile of brand new hardback books, while a line of eager young men and alluring young women wait for a personally signed copy of their very own. It seems that the book signing has become a movie payoff moment, like birth, marriage, death, and loss of virginity. 

In truth, most writers claim they hate book signings, book readings, and book tours. Personally, I get a kick out of them. I wrote every day for twenty years before I met another writer. I don’t even recall talking to a reader. So, it’s fun once every couple of years to meet people who are interested in the same things I’m interested in.

Now, I have the Jackson Hole Writers Conference (send a Message if you might want to come. It’s an inspirational hoot) but before that, all I had was the occasional book tour. I lived in a hovel, back then, and I still carry my food stamp card at all times to keep myself humble, so sleeping in high-end hotels and eating without regard to costs made me feel like a kid playing dress-up. There was the fear of my mom bursting into a reading and shouting, “Tim, you are a fraud.”

Mostly they’re entertaining but even when the worst that can possibly go wrong goes wrong — no one shows up, the store has no books, someone hoists their unpublished memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family on you — the traveling author goes back to the hotel room to watch pay per view over a mini-bar cocktail party. 

Book tours come in two sorts, with variations. The categories are air and car. When Honey Don’t came out I flew fourteen times in sixteen days, media escorts in each city, no entourage, no groupies. As a contrast, after Sorrow Floats was published I spent eight weeks driving around America, passing out t-shirts and reading the same chapter over and over. I gained twenty pounds.

I’ve learned better now. Garrison Keillor says the worst thing that can happen at a reading is for someone to read. I’ve watched the old pros — Chris Moore comes to mind — and most of them have worked up an act. They read less than three minutes out of thirty. I’ve heard Chuck Palahniuk sometimes throws body parts at the audience.

I used to think the media escort was purely an ego massage provided by the publishers to make us writers feel pampered, until I got one. A good media escort will help an author hit fifteen bookstores in an afternoon. These are called drive-by signings. You sign stock and tell the booksellers you can’t live without them. I do love people who sell books.

If you go on tour, I would advise against behaving like a jerk. The media escorts gossip. First, they tell you they aren’t supposed to talk about other writers, then, with a minimum of prodding, they dish the dirt — the women who meet up with extracurricular boyfriends, the men who drink themselves into a coma and refuse to leave the escort’s car. Jeffrey Archer is a legend for his bad behavior. He insists every escort address him as Lord Archer. Next most arrogant, rude, and demanding are the editors from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Think about that.

While it’s cool to meet fans who know my books better than I do and think I’m okay, every tour has at least one moment of crushing humiliation. Try driving 1,800 miles to Davis Kidd in Nashville and arriving to find out the events guy is off today, no one has ever heard of you, and no one can locate any of your books. I went to a Barnes and Noble in Kansas City and shyly said to the pretty girl at the information desk, “I’m Tim Sandlin. I’m supposed to be here tonight.” She disappeared for ten minutes and came back and handed me a job application.

I had a huge crowd, by my standards, at the old Hungry Mind in St. Paul. Halfway through the reading a bus pulled up and everyone but my wife and one other guy got up and left. Turned out they were an English as a Second Language group learning about American culture by attending my reading. (If you’ve read my books, you may find that appalling.) the bus came and they left. 

George Singleton ended a book tour in jail. He badmouthed George Bush on a Mississippi radio station and they busted his ass. The actual charge was being drunk and saying fuck on the air, but he claims he was arrested for trashing Bush in Mississippi.

Wherever two or more writers come together, they inevitably trade book tour horror stories. The worst (or best, depending on your attitude) story I’ve heard was told by Nancy Pearl. She’s the model for the librarian action figure, you may have seen. Has a TV show in Seattle where she interviews writers. She told me about a Canadian writer named Ian McSomethingoranother (this would be a better anecdote if I could remember his name). Anyway, no one showed up for Ian’s reading, which is okay when you’re not in your own hometown. Better than one or two coming because then you have to go through the motions while shoppers look at you with pity in their eyes. 

But the bookstore owner wouldn’t let Ian leave. She hustled around the store, begging customers to listen to the reading and finally one old guy who looked like he’d come into the store to get warm agreed to sit on the first row. 

Ian started the reading. His audience leaned forward, fell out of his chair and died. Repercussions were about what you would expect.

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Don’t do it.

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A couple of years ago USA Today ran one of those Top Ten lists that they love so much. It was the Top Ten Most Beloved People in America. I didn’t make the list. But a couple months later they ran the Top Ten Most Hated People in America (I didn’t make that list either), and it doesn’t take special insight to predict the same people were on both lists. Six of them, as I recall now. 

That’s when I came to certain realizations about the opinions of people who know me through my work but I don’t know them. Anyone in that position is both loved and hated for the wrong reasons and there’s nothing much you can do about it. Even Tom Hanks has his detractors and I met a guy lately who thinks Dick Cheney has a nice personality. 

This came to mind because the famous mystery novelist Sue Grafton once threatened to kill me. I don’t think she was serious — I didn’t start locking my doors or anything — but she definitely wasn’t kidding. This is a woman who spends a lot of time thinking about how it would feel to knock someone off. She tends to do it by creating thinly veiled fictional characters out of people she doesn’t care for and then whacking them. 

But the bottom line here is that Sue is a gracious, perfectly nice woman and she doesn’t like me. She’s not the only one. I can name several nice folks that I like who don’t like me a bit. And I wonder about that.

I understand the many wonderful people in the world who think my writing stinks. Lord knows, I don’t judge folks by whether they can stand my books or not. A writer would be a total dingbat if he, or she, turned against people simply for not connecting with the writing (although loving my work does help make a good first impression). I’m not that lost in vapid-land. 

And you don’t turn 35 living in a tent and washing dishes in an Italian restaurant if you care deeply about public opinion, so I’m not going to turn into the cloy king, but I’d like to come up with a stance to take on the issue of being hated by nice people. Anyone with ideas is welcome to throw them out there.

Announcements: 1) Those of you interested in writing or me or my writing can go to an interview at Roses and Thorns and learn everything you want to know about my attitude toward writing novels and then some. http://roseandthornreviews.blogspot.com/2008/04/tim-sandlin-author-interview-by.html

2) The Jackson Hole Writers Conference comes around June 25 to 28 — four days of inspiration and fun. Three writing critiques, seven New York Times best selling authors, seven agents and editors, workshops, and dancing cowboys and cowgirls — if you’ve never been to a writers conference, this is the one for you. If you have been, it’s the one for you also. You can hang around people who are interested in the same things you are interested in (how often does that happen outside the internet?) and, between sessions, wander through the Teton Mountains. Check it out right here.

3) I’m writing a scene in GroVont IV where Lydia goes to the Lompoc Minimum Security Federal Prison in Lompoc, California, to visit Hank. I would love to meet anyone who has served time in Lompoc, or visited a loved one in Lompoc, or knows of anyone who has ever been in Lompoc or any other minimum security federal pen. Surely, with 5,000-whatever of you out there, one of my fans has been in prison. Let me know. You too can make the Acknowledgments page.

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The need has come to explain myself to someone. First: I hear voices in running water. This communion-with-nature deal started out as mystic and romantic charm, like being on the edge of a great secret. I’d be hiking along the willow flats or aspen groves next to your typical Wyoming bubbling stream: Moss-covered stones, Lonicera waving in the sun, air that tastes of lemon on the back of the throat- and a murmur would float over the water’s surface. It sounded as if several young people were singing a message, or an underwater anthem. As I stood motionless, the voices grew louder and sounded like a psalm or a chant- Gregorian.., if the creek was wide enough.

Enraptured as hell by the whole experience, I would sit at the water’s edge for hours, knowing that if I was calm enough, and pure enough, the words would come together and some message of great importance would be revealed.

That was four years ago, when I was still married.

Then came the winter Julie boxed up her vitamins, the cook-book collection and two drawers full of Danskins, and moved across town. Less than two weeks passed before my shower distinctly said, “What dire offense from amorous causes springs,” I didn’t know at the time, but that’s the first line of a poem called ‘The Rape of the Lock” by a man named Alexander Pope. (Rape is the recurring theme in much of my plumbing’s poetry.)

The morning after my shower first spoke, the flushing toilet said, “Eat fish today.”

Of course, I didn’t eat fish that day. People who let auditory hallucinations boss them around wind up driving wooden stakes through the hearts of random strangers. Or tying up their mother and splitting her in half lengthwise with a chain saw. A lawn sprinkler in Cheyenne once gave me that suggestion.

At times I shout rude comebacks at the voices- “Fuck you too, buddy.” – or I stick fingers in the water while they’re speaking. Nothing fazes the jerks. They laugh and trill and go merrily about the business of driving me further from reality.

To read more Sex and Sunsets by Tim Sandlin, visit Amazon.com

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Let’s talk language. Pudenda is a word meaning “the external sexual organs of a human being, especially those of a woman.” It comes from the Greek word pudendum, which means “something to be ashamed of.” Consider the implications of that. It will give you meaningful insights into civilization.

I’ve taken a number of writing workshops, and taught even more, and I’ve never seen or heard an intelligent discussion on the proper way to write a sex scene. Maybe the teachers were afraid of being fired. The thing is, many, if not most, novels these days contain sex scenes and most authors are botching them up, probably because no one ever wrote the literary sex manual.

I’m at the stage in my career where public shunning might do me good, and I can’t be fired, so here is my take on literary copulation:

Beginners and Pulitzer Prize winners alike fall into two primary traps: 1) too many technical terms. One is enough. Or 2) Vague euphemisms. I had a student who kept writing about his “manhood.” It took me two stories to figure out where his manhood was. If that organ defines you’re manhood, you are basically a useless man. I thought he meant trigger finger until it started throbbing.

Romance writers tend to talk in terms of flowers. Or maidenheads. If I was a maiden and someone called that thing my head, I would be offended. Romance novels have a lot more sex scenes than my books, but my books are considered racy. No less than some crankcase in the New York Times Book Review claimed my last novel had too much sex between senior citizens. It made him feel icky to picture old people doing it. With luck, he won’t grow old or won’t be doing it when he does.

There’s only one real sex scene in the book. People think my novels are racy because my characters are true to life: They think about sex and talk about sex, more or less continuously, but when it comes to the real thing, they only pull it off every 200 pages or so.

I use sex in my books for the same reason I use it in life itsownself — for comic relief. Making love without laughing is like eating without tasting. You might not starve, but you’ll miss the fun. Might as well watch cooking on TV, if all you want is to kill some time.

The way to write fictional sex is through dialogue.

“Higher, dammit.”

“You’re on my hair.”

“When was the last time you cut your toenails?”

“Wrong hole!”

I know biting body parts sounds hilarious, but it’s been done before. Gross out humor belongs in the movies. Us novelists need to be more subtle.

The sexual ambiance needs to be unique in some way, or you might as well skip to breakfast, now that it’s no longer cool to skip to the cigarette. In nine fairly racy novels, I’ve only written one graphic scene between two regular adults who like each other, and I put that one in the catacombs of Paris, witnessed by six million dead people.

If you must write serious literature, I would advise skipping the thrusting manhood or angry urethras and going with emotions. Make the sentences read as poetry — man on top, iambic, woman on top, trochaic or even serpentine free verse. (You poets can work this out with other positions and forms). Typing “bitch” fifty times is boring and has been done. So has having a woman repeat “fuck me” over and over for two chapters. Don’t do it. I liked the Woody Allen movie where he said, “Slide,” because thinking about baseball made him last longer.

I don’t feel like talking about funny sex. I don’t feel funny. My dog died today. Nothing funny about that. And I saw “No Country for Old Men” last night, my first grown-up movie in months. It’s quite good from an artistic standpoint, but if you’re the type whose insanity level can be affected by movies, books, or music, I would avoid the whole thing. There will be people hospitalized from seeing that movie, and if you’re suicidal because your dog is dying, it might throw you off the roof.

Thirdly, (is that a word?) I’m having a colonoscopy Wednesday and I can’t eat all day tomorrow. I get dizzy and make poor choices if I don’t eat every three hours. I don’t know if I can handle thirty hours, or however long it is between right now and Wednesday morning when I come back from gassy-world.

It’s just a routine test, like you’re supposed to get at my age. My wife keeps bringing up people who died from routine anesthesia they didn’t really need since they weren’t sick. Our novelist friend Olivia went in for vanity facial manipulation and never came back. Then there’s that rapper fella’s mother.

I’ve got enough anxiety without friends forwarding horror stories from the internet. Please don’t. The medical profession has transformed healthy people into plants for years. Only now, it turns up on YouTube.

Shit. She was a nice dog.

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My daughter Leila turned seven last month and she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. For a couple of years, she dreamed of managing a hotel in China, when she grows up. She researched hotel management and knew the track to get there. Then, she moved on to designing clothes. She’s got talent. Lately, she switched to jewelry design.

Sunday night, I mentioned this lack of focus to me wife, Carol. “By the time I was seven I knew writing novels was my calling. I had my entire career mapped out, and I knew what I had to do to get there.”

Carol said, “Yes, but you’re a freak.”

I’m thinking the true freak — me — is the one who doesn’t even know he’s a freak. Self-awareness blows the gig.

I was right around seven when I wrote my first joke. I wrote it for my cousin to tell in the family Christmas Eve talent show. Here it is: “Did you hear about the Cherokee Chief Red Cloud who drank three gallons of Lipton tea. He was found, drowned in his tipi.” I was seven for God’s sake. What do you expect?

At nine, I had my first publication — a poem in either Highlights for Children of Jack and Jill magazine. Sometimes I tell interviewers one and sometimes the other, but the truth is I don’t remember. The poem was entitled “Trees.” There were leaves in it.

Inspired by publication, I wrote basically every day until my second publication — Sex and Sunsets — when I was thirty-seven. S&S stayed in print twenty years, until last summer. There have been six screenplays based on it, but no movies.

The first joke I wrote for public performance came in junior high. My friend Ronny was running for vice-president of the student council and he wanted a laugh to open his speech.

I wrote him this: “If Chad attacks Libya from the rear, do you think Greece will help?”

The first novel I wrote was The Battle of Bitter Creek, and one of the blog readers wrote me to say he has a copy. Amazingly enough. I’m not sure I even have a copy of the manuscript. It’s set in 1888. The spoiled wife of the owner of the railroad tells the residents of Bitter Creek, Wyoming, they must put clothes on their horses, dogs, cats, and chickens, or the railroad will never stop there again. The hero is R.C. Nash, a name I used thirty years later in Honey Don’t, my political farce. There’s another guy named Overbite O’Brien. The book was fairly low end.

Now, fifty years after the tipi joke and thirty-five years after the bad Bitter Creek novel, I have my first cowboy novel coming out next week. For those of you who keep score, it’s my ninth published book. Rowdy in Paris is set in 2004, I think. Rowdy Talbot goes to Paris to retrieve his stolen belt buckle and finds himself ass deep in a plot to destroy both McDonalds and Starbucks.

Riverhead/Putnam is publishing the book and because the other eight weren’t best sellers, they aren’t investing any money in publicity or marketing. No author tour. No free books to Book Sense stores. No co-op.

(Quick lesson in co-op: My friend who writes thrillers told me Barnes and Noble ordered 12,000 of his newest book. I said, “How did you swing that?”
He said, “My publisher is paying three dollars per copy for B&N to stock the book. It’ll go on the New Arrivals shelf.” In radio, this is condemned as payola. In publishing, it’s co-op.)

The only prayer this book has of selling enough copies for me to find a publisher willing to put out the next GroVont book (I’m on page 320) is if something happens to stick Rowdy on Putnam’s radar. To oversimplify, if they think the book will be big, the book will be big.

This can’t happen without you mighty blog readers. You want me to keep writing blogs and books, give me some support. You don’t, that’s okay too. The world won’t be dramatically different without my writing.

But, if you are of a mind to pitch in, there are two possibilities. 1) If you or your college roommate, ex-lover, or the in-law you can’t abide works for big media, tell them you know about a cool book.

Okay, that’s not likely. Second, if Rowdy makes a good run on the Amazon Top Five Million chart, it might get my publisher’s attention. Amazon measures velocity, as opposed to overall numbers. A book that sold 200 in the last hour will rate above a book that sold 20,000 last month. Thusly, when the guy at the New York Times Book Review said Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty sucked because no on wants to read about sex between old people, the book jumped 30,000 slots the next morning. Which is two books, if you’re in six figure-ville, but Jimi was okay to start with. The dynamite review in USA Today gave it an even better kick.

So, in order to make an Amazon run and hit my publisher in the noggin with a stick, you all not only need to buy Rowdy in Paris, you need to buy Rowdy in Paris at the same time.

Let’s say Thursday evening, January 24, at 6 p.m. Pacific time, which is 9 p.m. on the East Coast. You folks in Europe or wherever you are can figure it out. If you have any desire to read Rowdy or more blogs, buy the book between 6 and 7 PDT, the night of January 24. Buy several. They make outstanding gifts for loved ones.

Maybe, we’ll make a difference. Also, order books you have no intention of picking up from the chains. It’ll get me in their computers. Buy the backlist from your local independent bookstore, or go to my web site and buy first editions from Valley Books.

I would love to publish book #10 and it won’t happen without you guys.

p.s. The Chad-Libya-Greece joke is in Rowdy. Nothing is ever lost.

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Due to the severe isolation of the job, most literary writers, and a few of the genre guys, develop a co-dependency relationship with a specific bookstore. The store is usually a local, mid-sized independent where you can get to know the staff and the staff can get to know you and your idiosyncrasies. Authors become mascots, of a sort, like the store cat that customers see slinking through the stacks. We drop in at these bookstores four or five times a week, just to see the books on the shelves. We buy a few, of course, but most of the time we’re there to absorb vibrations off the printed page. We need to know books still exist. We need to renew faith that the book we’re writing now will one day be on those shelves, real and tangible.

My home store is Valley Books in Jackson, Wyoming. Steve Ashley owns Valley Books and he is the finest human I’ve known in my days on Earth. I have owed Steve money continuously for over thirty years. Back during the dishwashing decades, I would charge all my Christmas presents there, for the family back in Oklahoma, then spend the rest of the year paying off the bill.

After that, came the flush screenwriting years when I pretended Steve allowed me to hang out in his bookstore for a hundred dollar a month cover charge. In exchange, I pretended all the books were free. Most months it worked out well. Only in winter did I drop so far behind I had to write a massive check in the spring.

When I’m in the throes of writing a novel, I tend to get more than a little spooky. Steve’s employees have always been kind and patient with my abnormal behavior. More than once I came to after a bookseller touched me on the arm and asked after my welfare, when I was frozen up in front of a shelf.

Which brings us to Christmas Eve. Fifteen to twenty years ago, in appreciation of all Steve and his staff did for me, I would go in during Christmas week and clean the employee bathroom. I hoped to start a precedent ¬¬– a movement, if you will – whereby all authors clean their local bookstore employee bathrooms during Christmas week.

It never caught on. To this day, I think if Phillip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike had followed my lead, we would have created a new tradition, equal to Secret Santas and black-eyed peas on New Year’s. But then, Steve remodeled the store and did away with employee bathrooms. I would have probably stopped, eventually, anyway. There comes a time of life where it’s considered peculiar to clean other people’s bathrooms.

So, here is the current Christmas Eve tradition: First we – the family and I – go to the 4 p.m. Christmas carol service at the Episcopal Church here in town. My daughter, Leila, loves to sing, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” I like tradition and ritual.

(Last Monday night, Dick Cheney was at the service. By my modest count, seventeen members of the congregation were packing guns. We skipped the Peace. Made the Good Will to Men thing seem a bit warped.)

Then, after church, I take a bottle of Frangelica liqueur to Valley Books, and right before closing, the staff, the owner, family members, and late shoppers toast to Christmas and the wonderful folks who sell books. Actually, we share several toasts. I don’t drink much anymore, so it doesn’t take but a couple shots to zip me right into the holiday spirit. And I’ve found the staff is more appreciative of a Dixie cup full of cheer at closing time than they were of a clean bathroom.

If there’s any Frangelica left, I take it home and put in into the French toast Christmas morning. I heartily endorse baking with liqueurs.

On another note, I once tried to explain to Leila why teenagers hate poems and songs featuring their name. I used the example of “Georgie, Porgie, pudding and pie.” I never met a kid named George yet who doesn’t loathe that poem. And girls named Brandy – my advice is don’t break into “Brandy, you’re a fine girl,” when you meet them. They’ve heard it before. At seven, my Leila is not impressed by people who knock out a verse of “Layla” the moment they meet her. Besides, no one can remember the line after “You got me on my knees.”

For me, the most damaging Christmas icon is that little brat Tiny Tim. God, I hated that sanctimonious suck-up. I was small for my age – I grew seven inches after high school – so the whole tiny thing made me neurotic as a Democrat in Utah anyway. It didn’t help for other kids to taunt, “Where’s your crutch, Tiny Tim? When are you going to say your line?”

But then I grew up and I am no longer an insecure, short, isolated, frightened, resentful, nerdy, twerp.

I don’t think. To prove my point, I will now take a giant step forward in my development as a whole human being.

“Merry Christmas.” Here it comes: “God bless us every one.”

p.s. Mark it on your calendar. Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty comes out in paperback on January 4. If you’ve already read the book, buy a few for your loved ones. Grandparents love it even when they claim their friends won’t. And order three from chain stores. You don’t have to pick them up. Unclaimed books will eventually reach a shelf. I’m too old to wash dishes professionally.

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